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If the headline above didn’t grab your attention, I’m not sure what will. In case you haven’t noticed, mental health professionals have been arguing wildly lately about this very question—including whether it is ethical to assert that Donald Trump is out of his mind if one hasn’t clinically examined him. However, rather than trying to diagnose the president with this or that mental disorder, I think we can understand a lot of Donald Trump’s behavior using Dr. Jay Efran’s distinction between “mind” and “self.”

Efran’s notions of mind and self derive from his context-centered therapy, a constructivist approach that emphasizes the importance of contextual meaning in everyday life. A context is a framework of assumptions that shapes our experiences, meanings, and goals. According to context-centered therapy, how people understand events depends on the context in which they are operating. For instance, a sexual overture in the context of marriage is quite different from one in the context of work. All of us operate simultaneously in a variety of contexts, although—because contexts are background assumptions we don’t usually attend to—the profound influence of contexts on how we experience things often goes unnoticed.

Efran distinguishes two especially important psychological contexts: mind and self. The mind is “the totality of a person’s defensive postures and survival mechanisms” (Efran & Soler-Baillo, 2008, p. 89). The mind is focused exclusively on safety, survival, and proving itself right—no matter the cost. The mind sees danger everywhere and cares only about keeping you safe and making sure you win (or at least don’t lose). This explains why, when others criticize us, we often respond defensively; the mind won’t tolerate being on the short end of the stick. It also explains why we often argue with others over minutiae. The mind knows no proportion. It perceives an insignificant disagreement over which baseball team has cooler uniforms to be as threatening as a knife fight in a back alley. The self, on the other hand, isn’t concerned about survival. Instead, it “is the non-defensive recognition that we are all an integral part of our community and are intricately connected to the world at large” (Efran & Soler-Baillo, 2008, p. 89). The self is about openness to experience, non-possessive love, and connection with others. When it comes to engaging the world, the self sees prospects and possibilities—unlike the mind, which only sees threat and danger. Human experience is all about the daily struggle to balance the influences of mind and self.

So, what about Trump? I’ve never met the man, but from watching him in the media (TV, newspapers, and—all too often—Twitter), he can serve as a quintessential case study of mind in action. Thus, from a context-centered therapy perspective, Trump isn’t out of his mind. Rather, context-wise, he’s practically all mind all the time—and rarely operates from self.

Four examples of Trump’s mind in action:

  • The lies. Trump is regularly caught lying, even when the evidence to the contrary is glaring and undeniable. Why on earth would he insist that his inaugural crowds were bigger than Barack Obama’s? Because to let this go, from the context of mind, would be akin to losing. And the mind doesn’t want to lose. Ever. So, he insists his crowd was bigger. The mind in action.
  • The head-scratching tweets: Why tweet every time some minor person criticizes you? Because the mind can’t bear to lose! It jumps into action whenever it feels threatened. Some B-list celebrity insults you? This cannot stand! Twitter to the rescue! Some foreign leader disagrees with you? Where’s that cell phone? We must set the record straight immediately, lest anyone think we’re one down!
  • The questionable decisions. If you’re talking to the Russians in the Oval Office, why the heck would you tell them that Attorney General James Comey was fired to keep him off their backs? Again, the mind must always win! When operating from mind, it’s always about victory in the immediate moment. So, even though boasting about firing the attorney general had potentially negative long term consequences for him, Trump couldn’t stop his mind from springing into action.
  • Alienating Allies. Trump seems hell bent to anger long-term U.S. allies. Whether he’s complaining about who is or isn’t paying sufficient NATO dues or dissing the Paris Accord as making a fool of the U.S., he’s operating from mind. The mind always sees things in zero-sum terms: other’s gains are Trump's loss. Rather than acting from self and trying to understand and connect with overseas leaders, Trump sees the transactions exclusively in “you win, I lose” terms.

I’m sure you can generate additional examples of Trump’s tendency to let his mind get the best of him. The thing of it is, his behavior is merely an exaggeration of a way we all operate at times. Everyone functions from the context of mind some of the time. However, the mind’s short-term outlook and defensiveness are narrow and limiting. The mind only cares if we’re safe and winning, not happy or satisfied. No wonder Trump rarely smiles. All mind, all the time is no fun at all. Operating from self is riskier in the sense that it requires us to trust others, engage with them, be open to new and challenging ideas, and see the world as bountiful with possibilities. But it also offers much greater chance of contentment and satisfaction. We all could benefit from paying closer attention to when mind and self are at play in our everyday interactions—allowing us not to let our minds get the best of us quite as often.

Is Donald Trump out of his mind? From a context-centered therapy perspective, not a bit. Sadly, he’s all too much in it.


Efran, J. S., & Soler Baillo, J. (2008). Mind and self in context-centered psychotherapy. In J. D. Raskin & S. K. Bridges (Eds.), Studies in meaning 3: Constructivist psychotherapy in the real world (pp. 85-105). New York, NY: Pace University Press

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